Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni is perhaps the only person in the world who could depict his thoughts through god-like perfection. He was a man touched with divine genius in art and all forms of science. While he was an extraordinary scholar, the world seems to be mesmerized by his art since time immemorial. Tormented by his physical insecurities it seems as if he craved to show us what perfection feels like. It would be an understatement to call Michelangelo’s work “art” because it is clearly so much more. In this article, we navigate Michelangelo’s life as a sculptor.
David (1501- 1504)
Michelangelo’s David reflects every second of the four long years that he tirelessly spent in perfecting this statue. While Michelangelo is the most famous sculptor in the world, David is his most famous work. At the young age of 26, Michelangelo began his lifelong pursuit of perfection and beauty through David.
In the early 16th century, a cathedral in Florence commissioned Michelangelo to sculpt a statue of the biblical hero David. There were several challenges to be overcome while taking up this colossal task. The cathedral required the artist to use a specific block of marble for this work. Moreover, before Michelangelo, several other artists tried to do the job but failed. As a result of their trial and failure, there was a big hole in the middle of the marble, moreover, it was too narrow to fit David’s complete body.
How was David Made?
Michelangelo made several smart decisions so that he could create a masterpiece with what he had without cutting corners. He had to make sure that David was facing sideways, standing in a counter pose, and that he was relatively slender. Unlike other artists, he doesn’t depict David with Goliath’s severed head. He does not attempt to show us his story, but just David in all his glory. David’s personality as a rational intelligent man is visible through Michelangelo’s sculpture. The sculptor represents the humanistic side of a man who can take control of his animalistic instincts. His face depicts concentration and deep thought. He is genuinely concerned about the challenge ahead of him.
David’s head and hands look too large when viewed from the front. However, the artist was aware that the sculpture was to be viewed from an angle, as it would be 80 feet above the ground. Since the sculpture was to be viewed from below the proportions look perfect from the designated angle.
Pietà (1498 – 1499)
Pietà refers to a popular theme in Christian art that captures a deceased Jesus being cradled by Mother Mary after his crucifixion. Today the word Pietà is immediately associated with Michelangelo’s 1499 sculpture of the same name. The amalgamation of a gut-wrenching story with artistic precision and accuracy makes this work painfully beautiful. The blankness on Mother Mary’s face and the pitiful condition of Jesus’ dead body is enough to move a viewer to tears. The realistic folds and drapes in the fabric covering the two subjects are a big part of the sculpture. It is baffling how well a 23-year-old sculptor makes a piece of stone look soft and real.
Housed in the Church of San Pietro in Vilcoli, Michelangelo’s sculpture “Moses” is part of a very large project. This sculpture was commissioned for Pope Julius’s tomb wall. The tomb wall consists of ten life-size structures. Michelangelo gave this piece his flair by highly dramatizing the statue of Moses. The body of this biblical prophet exudes power and strength. His beard is swayed to the left while his head seems to turn toward the right. His left leg pushes back suggesting that he is about to stand up while the muscles in his arms and legs are flexed. The horns on his head are a result of mistranslation. The sculpture not only captures Moses’ rage but also the tension of the moment.
The Deposition (1547)
The deposition reflects Michelangelo’s realization of mortality toward the end of his life and also a fading image of his extraordinary talent. The sculpture shows Jesus’ dead body being brought down by Nicodemus and Joseph to Mother Mary. In his last years, we see that Michelangelo’s sculptures are less about beauty and more related to his spiritual awakening. Art critics like Vasari were frustrated when they witnessed the incompleteness of ‘The Deposition’. However, it is difficult to know if inaccuracy in the piece is a result of his fading talent or an intended feature of the statue.
Dionysus or Bacchus was the Greek god of wine. As a result, he is depicted with a goblet of wine in his hand while his posture clearly shows that he is intoxicated. The sculpture was commissioned by Cardinal Raffaele Riario, who rejected it because it shows the god in a negative light. The body is quite effeminate for a male figure and has probably been made that way on purpose.
Michelangelo’s Rachel is part of Pope Julius’ tomb wall and stands alongside Moses. The sculpture depicts a biblical figure from the old testament, joining her hands as she looks up, almost cowering. It’s as if the artist carefully calculated how light would hit the sculpture so that it seems that divine light is shining upon Rachel as she prays. Rachel represents a life devoted to prayer and faith. The later stages of the statue were finished by Michelangelo’s assistants.
Rebellious Slave (1513)
The Rebellious slave depicts exactly what the title suggests. We see a man whose hands have been tied to his back with chains. His chiseled body is barely covered with a piece of delicate torn cloth as he tries to free himself. His shoulder is pointed toward the viewer making it seem like he is reaching out to us. This not only makes us more involved in the drama but also we tend to share his emotions.
Madonna of Bruges
One of the most interesting facts about the ‘Madonna of Burges’ is that it was carved out of a single piece of stone! The painting depicts Mary holding a young Jesus as he tries to stand with his mother’s support. The sculpture is almost like a chiaroscuro painting with the different elements, especially Mary’s clothes creating a stark contrast between light and shadows. The sculpture gained international recognition when it was looted by the Nazis during World War II.
Crouching Boy (1530 – 1534)
The Crouching Boy is an incomplete work by Michelangelo. We see a boy almost in fetal position who is tending to his foot. The only part of the statue that is nearly complete is the boy’s torso, with visibly toned muscles. Art critics have been completely torn over the interpretation of this figure. His curled body may be representative of concealed power and strength within him. The piece also gives a sense of remorse and solitude. To some the boy is a symbol of power, yet to realize his potential.
Atlas Slave (1525-1530)
I included this sculpture in the list of his best works not because of its beauty or refinement in technique. Through this work, I wanted to highlight one of Michelangelo’s most beautiful thoughts. He believed that he isn’t simply carving a person out of stone, he is rather releasing the beauty that is within it, like a tool of god. The sculpture seems like it’s breaking free from the stone. Michelangelo didn’t require a model as a reference for his work. He would simply carve out his imagination in marble, starting from the front, making his way back – he knew exactly where to chip.
Michelangelo’s work is usually praised for its realism and beauty. In doing so we often forget the thought, imagination, and emotions that go into his work. His precise manipulation of the chiaroscuro technique and exceptional attention to detail have made his work the standard of magnificence against which beauty is measured.
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